Get real about Afghanistan?

September 4, 2009 | By | 21 Replies More

Building on our recent discussion of Afghanistan, a couple of items of interest today.  Daring to stand up to the budding consensus that it may be time to get out of Afghanistan, Ruben Navarette today released an commentary on the topic.  He notes that “Senior Pentagon officials are expected to ask for as many as 45,000 additional American troops this month.  Currently, there are about 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.”  To him, this is not a bothersome development.  He complains that the only “nation-building” the left supports is the type done by the Peace Corps, rather than the military.  With no indication why this position is incorrect, he asserts that

“Liberals love to build things, especially with other people’s tax dollars. They just don’t like the idea of U.S. troops doing the building. Maintaining a military presence on foreign soil makes the left nervous because it feeds the perception that the United States has an itch for imperialism and can’t go long without scratching it.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s the 737 military bases around the world and millions of deployed soldiers that really “feeds the perception” that we have an “itch for imperialism.” I wonder why Navarette doesn’t criticize war-mongering conservatives for “loving to build things, especially with other people’s tax dollars”? After all, the Pentagon estimates that our overseas bases are worth at least $127 billion— does he think they were paid for through donations from grateful Iraqis and Afghanis?

Finally, he trots out the standard Neocon/Bush reasoning for why we are involved: we have to fight them over there, so we don’t fight them here.

But holding the line in Afghanistan doesn’t just make political sense for Obama. It’s also common sense. Forget nation-building. Let’s focus on the need to maintain an outpost in a dangerous neighborhood so we can ferret out our enemies and eliminate them before they can strike us again.

It’s time to grow up and confront an unpleasant reality, folks. The world changed on September 11, 2001, and it’s not a question of “if” another attack comes but “when.” Retreat isn’t an option. Nor is surrender. And nor is a kind of wistful isolationism where U.S. troops pack up their gear and come home, where bygones will be bygones and where al Qaeda won’t follow. We can fight this battle on the streets of Kabul or in Kansas City.

Pullout of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. 1988. Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev. From Wikipedia (Commons)

Pullout of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. 1988. Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev. From Wikipedia (Commons)

Does Navarette really believe that truckloads of armed Afghanis will invade Kansas City?  How absurd.  I’m left wondering why retreat is not an option?  Clearly, we are not wanted, either in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Why must we agree to “maintain an outpost” in order to “ferret out our enemies”?   Especially in the wake of another important story about Afghanistan– a NATO strike yesterday killed at least 80 people, including many villagers.  Add these civilians to the tens of thousands killed overall, and the “1,013 Afghan civilian deaths for the six months from January 1st to June 30.”  Think about that statistic… over a thousand civilian deaths in 6 months.  I wonder why they don’t want us there?  It seems that, rather than ferreting out our enemies, we have proven to be rather exceptional killers of civilians there while little has been done to actually accomplish any military objectives.  Does anyone know what our goal in Afghanistan really is?  It’s been variously described as hunting for Bin Laden, destroying Al-Qaeda, making it safe for democracy, not to mention the cynical reason: “energy security“.  Read that as ensuring control over the area’s energy corridor by interests friendly to the United States.

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is a full-time wage slave and part-time philosopher, writing and living just outside Omaha with his lovely wife and two feline roommates.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Brynn: What we are currently doing in Afghanistan disgusts me. What does it say about American politicians when 1,000 accidental deaths caused by American bombs don't cause us to ask at least THIS question: What military objective are we trying to achieve in Afghanistan? It is telling that the Obama Administration is forging ahead without having a military mission, just like the War Criminal who preceded him in office. I'm convinced that our whole mission these days is to display our military so that American looks tough and Obama looks tough. There's also an aspect of sunk costs which, by the way, is a mental fallacy.

    The Afghanistan war is a war looking for a reason. As such, it is a war based on the lie that there is a currently a legitimate reason for the U.S. to be there. Like all recent wars, it's a sterile war–the politicians and news media have a secret pact that they won't remind citizens/readers that war is about lots of good people getting killed and that it might also be about bad people who aren't actually much different than the good people.

    It’s time to face the gristly reality that we are making a mess of things in the Middle East, just as we did in Vietnam. With good intentions, we are mostly doing terrible things that that are hurting innocent people (both our own soldiers and civilians) and making lots of people hate America. It’s time to leave, because there is no military mission with achievable metrics.

    I propose the same thing that Amy Goodman proposed regarding Iraq. Let's show lots of images of the dead and injured people, including the little children who lack arms, legs and eyes. And let's show the anguished faces of burn victims and the parents of the dead babies. The U.S. military HATES this idea.

    Ask yourself, Isn't it odd that we spend hundreds of billions in Afghanistan but the photos coming back home are heavily censored. If it's important that we see photos of airplane crashes here in the states, and God knows that it's important for us to see photos when then home town team wins or loses a baseball game. Why no photos? It's not because they wouldn't be interesting. They'd likely be award-winning and tear-jerking. But they'd make us wonder what the hell we're doing over there.

    Amy suggested that the Iraq war would end in one week if we freely published images from the war for one week. I agree entirely. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.

    But now focus your cynicism for a moment. The news media wrings its hands about these wars that go on and on. But all the while (if you agree with Amy Goodman's approach) they have tremendous power that they refuse to use. All they need to do is print pictures of some of those Afghan wedding guests we've recently dismembered and put it smack on the front page. Give it a more prominent position than you give to Michael Jackson's month-old death or baseball players giving each other the high five. Then come back with more photos of life on the ground. And publish more photos showing that public officials are afraid to walk around on public streets without heavily armed guards eight full years after Afghanistan was made safe for democracy.

    Our media could stop the killing and the bombing, but they won't.

    Somehow, we need to stop fighting media-sterilized pretend wars. Let's show the citizens what they are actually getting for their hard earned tax dollars. Let's show them the lack of progress week after bloody week. Let's show them the photos that make it clear that we are not wanted in Afghanistan. Let's show them the names, faces and salaries of the $200,000/year mercenaries we send over there, and let's show them the balance sheets of the companies that employ these mercenaries.

    If I were an investor in a company, I'd be entitled to a frank progress report. I'm paying for that war in Afghanistan and I demand some accountability.

  2. Chris says:

    The whole reason we're still in Afghanistan is to keep a fledgling friendly democracy that cannot defend itself from being overrun by an insurgency that even we have not been able to, as of yet, contain.

    Never mind that so many of our problems are our own doing, such as a ridiculously small deployment for such a wide area, and poppy eradication in otherwise impoverished areas. Not to mention our nasty (but entirely changeable) habits of bombing civilians and of pulling out of areas after they're secured, leading to Taliban reprisals against those who supported us.

    Sunk costs may be a fallacy, but it's also foolish to assume that just because something was done improperly in the past means it cannot be done well in the future. Though I do wonder along with you about the military's seeming fascination with General Westmoreland's military "genius".

    60% of those 1,000 deaths were caused by the deliberate actions of insurgents and not our own incompetence. These are not the gentleman guerrilla fighters Che Guevara wrote to, ones who already have the support of the populace at large. These control through fear, not idealism, and have proven their tyrannical nature in the past; what makes you think everything will turn to peace and roses if we leave now? There will just be more bloodletting as they gradually get the upper hand over the national army (still years away from being able to fend for itself), and then as they re-establish their rule.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Chris: What would you propose as your end game in Afghanistan–what would need to happen in order that you could declare victory? And what exactly would you propose as the military-appropriate mission? And what will be your response if/when this fledgling democracy votes despots into office and they demand that we leave Afghanistan? And what other countries can we "improve" by occupying?

      Re sunk costs, consider this hypothetical. Assume that the foreign troops currently in Afghanistan were all British and they were about to pull completely out. Would you vote to replace all of them with American troops?

  3. Chris says:

    In the unlikely event that despots are legitimately voted into office, then you need to take a long, hard look at exactly what would be happening after we left. In all foreseeable circumstances the best we could do would be to comply, as they wouldn't be asking us to leave if their own regime was in danger, and the worst we could expect to see elected in would be a kleptocracy; an oppressive regime such as the Taliban would not be elected (though a secular democracy is still generations away from being even possible).

    My ideal end game would be a countryside of cities and villages where the insurgency has been routed and where security is guaranteed. Our experience in Iraq has proven that rebuilding a national army, while difficult and lengthy, can eventually result in a force able to expand to be responsible for more and more areas. You need to take a long view with regard to this end game though: insurgencies don't just up and die one day, they dwindle slowly and keep fighting and destroying long past the period where they have no chance of success at current trajectories, and trajectories are reversible if you fail to follow through.

    The military's role in providing this long-term improvement of the security situation is to safeguard the populace and reconstruction projects, facilitate the gathering of human intelligence, and track insurgents to their remote redoubts before they launch strikes against populated areas. To this end I would say we needed far more troops in the country than we currently do; if all non-American soldiers were removed we would need to replace them and then add more still.

    As for countries that could be improved via invasion, I can't think of any. That tract of land we call "Somalia", however, could use a functioning government. You'll note that even after they got their moderate islamist president and the Ethiopian troops were replaced with AU troops as they demanded the radicals carry on the good fight against the government. Somalia's continued war-ravaged destitute state and immense reliance on food aid is a testament to the lack of will of the international community.

    Long ago when imperialism was in style the costs of a military occupation would happily be borne by a government, but now that all they stand to gain is a better life for people "over there" they can't be bothered. You can't fix everything, but I find that people are loathe to even try to fix *anything*. "Billions for food, but not a penny for security" seems to be the spirit of the times.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    What about that Afhanistan "election"? Maybe we're successfully exporting American democracy, complete with election fraud. The NYT reports:

    Afghans loyal to President Hamid Karzai set up hundreds of fictitious polling sites where no one voted but where hundreds of thousands of ballots were still recorded toward the president’s re-election, according to senior Western and Afghan officials here.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/07/world/asia/07fr

  5. Erich,

    I don't think we're doing a very good job in Afghanistan, but I would love to hear some workable alternatives that would keep the Taliban out of power there. In this instance, I gotta say I think pulling out and letting a resurgent Taliban overwhelm that country again would be a moral travesty. These are nasty, evil people, they're a transplant (originally) from Pakistan, and when all the shit originally flew they were harboring Osama Bin Laden. I am profoundly pissed that at the time we wasted our efforts on an ill-advised invasion of Iraq and gave Afghanistan short-shrift. There were legitimate reasons for going into Afghanistan then, but because it was muffed so badly we have created a wholly different situation in which we once more are the Bad Guys. If we had dumped the Iraq invasion force into Afghanistan in the first six months, many of these problems would likely be gone. Instead we gave 'em a lick and promise and went off to topple Saddam, and the forces left behind did little more than scratch an itch.

    I think it would not be a bad thing to stand firm against the lunacy of the Taliban. To pull out and let them "win" would be to give them a false impression of themselves as a viable alternative to what we have to offer.

    But in order to do this, we need to see something done with Pakistan.

    It is not black & white in this instance and I feel a real moral/political issue is at stake. Too bad it has to be Afghanistan of all places, a land that has never been amenable to foreign incursion for any reason.

  6. One suggestion that has yet to be tried in the Middle East—and likely never will be as it comes across too strident and too "culturally insensitive"—would be to arm all the women. They're the ones who suffer most under regimes like the Taliban. It's not like a few more guns in the region would make any difference, but it might be worth seeing how many husbands, sons, and cousins end up shot the moment they start talking jihad.

  7. Chris says:

    Don't even remind me… As I mentioned, a kleptocracy (though in this case not necessarily fairly elected).

    Karzai's chief opponent, Dr. Abdullah, seems to have a fairly good head on his shoulders (based on an admittedly general understanding). He's about what I would expect voters to put in, and you can't even compare him to a Taliban regime.

    If I had to make a choice between supporting Karzai 100% without pushing for fair elections, and pulling out so the Taliban could take over though, I know which I'd pick. And that's a false dilemma anyway.

  8. Brynn Jacobs says:

    While granting that the Taliban are nasty folks, why does that justify our continued imperial policy towards Afghanistan? We're creating a whole new generation of anti-American freedom fighters, in the name of bringing democracy to Afghanistan. Can anyone show me where the Afghan people requested our help to bring democracy to them? Or that they desire democracy at all? These are the assumptions that underlie our policy that need to be asked and answered.

    If we were to pull out and the situation devolved, presumably there could be some sort of request made to the United Nations to step in and help broker peace. I'm sure we'd be happy to contribute peacekeeping troops to a coalition effort. That, at least, would mitigate the perception that we are there as an occupying force, killing civilians at will.

    As it stand now though, it appears that we are uninvited guests making demands of the Afghan people that they are unable or unwilling to comply with. How long do we continue? And at what cost?

    As I see it, it's not our job to bring democracy anywhere, especially when we have such glaring problems with our own democracy. If people around the world desire our help, let them at least ask for it first. This swaggering arrogance is a big part of why we are so despised around the world. For some reason, we assume that the military have only the best of intentions, that we are helping (no matter how big of a mess we make), and that if we add tens of thousands of more troops we can solve everything. Sometimes, things just do not work out that way.

    Lastly, the largest reason given for our involvement is to prevent terrorism. But the terrorist threat from Afghanistan is overblown:

    This brief overview of recent terror attacks suggest that no Afghan citizen has been involved in serious international terrorism over the past decade. And in the vast majority of recent attacks, the oft-cited terrorist training camps in Afghanistan appear to have played little or no role. Rather than going to training camps, the 7/7 and 21/7 bombers, for example, are thought to have gained their bomb-making know-how from the internet, or even in chemistry classes (16). The irony is that, to the extent that terrorism has ‘sprung from Afghanistan’, it has been as a result of the West’s own actions over the past 30 years. American and British governments sponsored the Mujahideen during the Afghan-Soviet war, training them in urban warfare and bomb-making and other military techniques – and many foreign Mujahideen, from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere, then made use of this know-how back in their home countries or in international acts of terrorism. The West helped to unleash a new form of Islamic militancy in parts of the East. However, today’s Afghanistan itself is no hotbed of international terrorism, and treating it as such is to avoid asking hard questions about what is really driving contemporary terror attacks.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    What Afghan army, asks Ann Jones:

    What is there to show for all this remarkably expensive training? Although in Washington they may talk about the 90,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army, no one has reported actually seeing such an army anywhere in Afghanistan. When 4,000 U.S. Marines were sent into Helmand Province in July to take on the Taliban in what is considered one of its strongholds, accompanying them were only about 600 Afghan security forces, some of whom were police. Why, you might ask, didn't the ANA, 90,000 strong after eight years of training and mentoring, handle Helmand on its own? No explanation has been offered.

    Read more at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ann-jones/meet-the-

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    From the London Times:

    The head of the UN mission in Afghanistan has been accused by his former deputy of ordering a systematic cover-up to conceal the extent of electoral fraud by President Karzai. In an attack on the role of the UN in the elections on August 20, Peter Galbraith, who was sacked as Deputy Special Representative to the UN mission in Kabul last week, says that Kai Eide ordered him not to reveal evidence of fraud or to pass it to the authorities.

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/Afgha

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    Ron Paul on Afghanistan:

    The real question is why are we there at all? What do our efforts now have to do with the original authorization of the use of force? We are no longer dealing with anything or anyone involved in the attacks of 9/11. At this point we are only strengthening the resolve and the ranks of our enemies. We have nothing left to win. We are only there to save face, and in the end we will not even be able to do that.

    http://www.blog.populistamerica.com/2009/10/15/sa

    I agree with Ron Paul on this topic. I would also point out that we remain in Afghanistan because of the fallacy of "sunk costs" and because we cling to the idea that it is an "evil" place. We need to get over that. The 9/11 attackers are no longer alive, and the next time America is attacked, those attackers could come from anywhere at all; they might even be Anglo-saxons who were born and raised in America.

  12. Erich Vieth says:

    The NYT apparently wants to escalate U.S. military action in Afghanistan:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-bromwich/war-

  13. Erich Vieth says:

    "I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States' presence in Afghanistan," [foreign service advisor Matthew Hoh] wrote Sept. 10 in a four-page letter to the department's head of personnel. "I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end."

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/arti

  14. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Blogger Arthur Silber disputes Hoh's assertion that "my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end." The whole article merits a read, but here's a highlight:

    The significance of Hoh's own judgment of his actions in Iraq, and his own failure to acknowledge the true nature of the U.S. presence there, lies in the fact that it undercuts his protest about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan on the most fundamental level. Hoh offers no principled opposition to wars of aggression: he approves of a criminal war in Iraq, but opposes it in Afghanistan. And he opposes it in Afghanistan not because it's a crime and morally abhorrent — which it is — but because it's not "working." It's "ineffective." This perfectly mirrors the typical liberal criticism of the Iraq crime: that it was executed "incompetently." Opposition of this kind finally reduces to no opposition at all, except on specifics. Such opposition is futile, inconsistent and contradictory, and ultimately worthless. It fails to challenge U.S. policy on the critical, more fundamental level — and it invites a future catastrophe on an equal or, which is horrifying to contemplate, an even greater scale.

  15. Erich Vieth says:

    Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the president of Afghanistan, gets regular payments from the CIA and has for much of the past eight years, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

    Read more at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/27/karzais-

  16. Erich Vieth says:

    Nicolas Kristof considers alternate was to make a bad situation in Afghanistan better:

    For the cost of a single additional soldier stationed in Afghanistan for one year, we could build roughly 20 schools there. It’s hard to do the calculation precisely, but for the cost of 40,000 troops over a few years — well, we could just about turn every Afghan into a Ph.D.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/29/opinion/29krist

  17. Erich Vieth says:

    The Guardian calls the military occupation in Afghanistan "Groundhog Day," indicating that "Afghanistan is a political failure, a fact over which the international community continue to be in denial." http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/nov/

  18. Erich Vieth says:

    From Glenn Greenwald:

    To summarize: the NYT Op-Ed Page decided, for whatever reasons, that it wanted to find someone to urge more civilian deaths in Afghanistan. The person it found to do that is someone about whom virtually nothing was known, yet works for one of the largest, most sprawling and influential defense firms in the nation, a virtual arm of the Pentagon, but they decided there was no reason to have its readers know that.

    http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald

  19. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Apparently, the NYT's push for more civilian deaths in Afghanistan is working. In contravention of their own rules of engagement, US Special Operations forces have murdered an additional 27 civilians in an airstrike this week. Have we given up the pretense that we are there to win hearts and minds? Consider:

    Afghans can often recite from memory the deadliest coalition mistakes: the bombing of fuel tankers in the northern province of Kunduz in September that killed up to 142 people, many of them civilians; the 2000-pound bomb dropped by a B-1 bomber during a battle in western Farah province in May that left dozens of civilians dead; the November 2008 airstrike on a wedding in the southern province of Kandahar that killed 37 people.

    The coalition and Afghan forces fighting in Marjah have also accidentally killed civilians since the offensive began after midnight on Feb. 13. So far, at least 19 civilians have been killed in the offensive…

    Afghan officials complain Special Operations Forces are killing and arresting too many civilians in so-called "night raids," a major source of tension between coalition officials and the Karzai administration.

    "Nobody has an idea what were they doing there because they don't share anything with the Afghans," said an official at the presidential palace. He added that U.S. Special Operations Forces "arrest people and they raid houses without keeping the Afghans in the loop."

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